Since 2012 I’ve been compiling a year-end list of lessons learned that stand out. I make a point to not review previous year’s posts when writing the current one, for fear that it will narrow my thinking. When finished, I review past years’ posts. This year I noticed some overlap. Elements of #1 and #5 were planted before, but this time they re-emerged in finer detail, proving they are themes that continue to help evolve my work as an organizer. A big and continued thank you to all of my clients for inviting me into parts of your life that maybe only have been shared with family and close friends. I love this work more each day, and am grateful that the inspiration to hone it keeps coming year after year! Read previous year’s posts here.
1 - Freedom is the ultimate reason why we organize
I’ve come to believe that the only reason we do anything is to feel better. I love to help people get organized because I get to watch people in real time feel better than they did minutes ago. It’s a joy to watch joy unfold. Sometimes in the moment, it may look like just a bit of relief, but I know that it’s a stop on the path to joy. One day as I was washing dishes, the confluence of some things that I had recently watched, read, and been pondering struck me. In that moment I knew that the specific strain of good feeling we reach for when we organize is freedom. I walked to my computer and about an hour later I had written this post on reframing organizing as “finding freedom."
2 - You don’t have to be motivated to get organized. In fact, you can dread it.
One of my favorite clients of 2017 is an octogenarian who always greets me with a warm hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a stream of jokes. This picture that I shared in October is from his home office floor, a perfectly preserved time capsule from the ‘70s. At the end of about our tenth session, he said:
“I absolutely dread it when you come over, but I leave feeling so good. You’re like an angel.”
This gave me pause, not for its obvious flattery, but because of his raw honesty. I like to emphasize the importance of getting motivated to organize. In fact, the first point I make in my eBook is “Get Motivated.” Well, in his case his son nearly forced him and his wife to hire me, and he clearly dreads it! He’s no poster child for motivation. He’s not going to kum-ba-ya his way though a list of fluffy reasons why he wants to get organized.
Nevertheless, he’s doing it, and he’s a champion at it. He tosses paper at record speed and has far greater stamina for standing at a ping pong table covered in old bank statements than he gives himself credit for. Yes, I do believe he’s motivated, but he’s taught me that there’s something to be said for true grit. “Getting organized” is never top on his list of things to do that day, but it gets done.
Do you think you dread organizing more than he does, but don’t have an adult son forcing you to do it? Admit the dread. Curse the self-help books. Skip all steps to trick you into getting motivated and just start somewhere. You might be very good at it.
3 - The right supply or piece of furniture can solve everything (if you’re patient)
The most organized person I know is a client of mine - and I take no credit for helping her achieve that superlative. After working together in her office to take it from an A+ to an A++, she graciously connected me to an international organization where I gave over a dozen workshops over the following two years. As a thank you, I gave her an organizing session in her home.
This one bedroom DC condo just SANG. It was minimal without being sparse and highly designed without being uptight. I immediately felt that every piece of furniture, art, and utensil was carefully curated. It was a perfect balance of edited, utilitarian, and soulful. I could feel the integrity of her standards vibrating through the air. I had never felt this in a home before.
I needed to take notes not for my clients, but for me. This was new territory, so I humbly asked her how she does it.
She told me that once the need for a piece of furniture arises, she holds a specific vision of what it needs to look like and how it needs to function. Then, she waits. In this home that is a blend of handcrafted to mid-range to very high end pieces, she gave the example of a shallow white Ikea cabinet that was the one piece she had been waiting for to contain her books. Not to knock Ikea, but in her home, you would never even guess it were Ikea. (I wrongly guessed it was Room & Board).
This year when the piles of paper and detritus (gasp!) made apparent our need for a new piece of dining room furniture, I remembered Barbara’s advice. I wanted a low mid century teak or walnut credenza that was a combo of cabinets and drawers to house the things that were continually homeless or stuffed somewhere in a suboptimal home. It also needed to be aesthetically compatible with my Javanese teak pieces of furniture. I was willing to spend a bit, but still wanted to feel like I got a bargain. Mostly, I needed it to contain my home office items, given that my dining table is my de facto desk.
The need arose in the spring, and we found our perfect piece on Craigslist in October for $400 (plus $50 delivery). It is a masterfully refinished solid walnut mid century credenza, with dimensions that are juuuust right.
Because we were patient:
I can completely clean off the dining room table in the evening, not just pile unfinished work onto a chair.
My various folders and papers have a neat little drawer worthy of a professional office organizer’s home.
My husband’s file box is no longer sitting on the bedroom floor.
Batteries, measuring tape, packing tape, and other highly used small tools are united and accessible.
All wires and small electronics are united and accessible.
Stamps and greeting cards are united and accessible.
My checkbooks and registers (Yes, I balance two checkbooks to the penny!) and business receipt envelopes have a perfect little home.
Dining table clutter is GONE!
We have the joy of acquiring yet another “buy it for life” piece of beloved furniture.
It was worth the wait. All too often I see clients either purchase storage before they know their exact needs, and/or hastily purchase something too expensive, too cheap, or otherwise suboptimal just to cross it off their list. When this happens, at worst, the problem isn’t inherently solved, and at best, the solution looks piecemeal.
Define what you want.
Take your time.
Don’t buy crap (to contain or be contained).
Hold to your standards.
Purchase for the long haul.
4 - It’s enough to be organized enough.
I’ve always felt this way, but in 2017 I learned to articulate that it’s enough to be organized enough. Just as with Instagram where people only see the most polished version of people’s lives, in magazines and blogs we’re only seeing spaces at their most dressed up, not how they are truly lived in. Yes, there are parts of my home that are most always camera-ready, but when we’re living (which is always) and where we’re living (which is most of the home), it’s a bit untidy. We’re certainly organized, but just enough.
The realization that many of my clients are striving for “organized enough” crept in as I was starting to re-compile my before and after photos for my site. I intentionally pulled them down years ago when upgrading my site, feeling like the essence of the work was not captured in two pictures. Sure, some clients have fabulous taste and budgets to match, so their offices do look editorial in the “after.” In most cases though, it’s still an unremarkable room, but now with loads of empty space and a few simple systems in place of the clutter. What you can’t see is the peace of mind that entered the room and psyche. These aren’t going to win any design awards, but there had been a great deal of thought, time, and personal breakthroughs that were invisible to the naked eye. They are the humble heavy-lifters that comprise the bulk of my portfolio.
In 2018 I commit to re-sharing my proud before and afters, regardless of how anti-climactic I expect the passerby to feel about them. They will be paired with a case study, describing all that you can’t see. No one pulled the bus away to reveal any extreme makeovers with knocked-out walls and a killer furniture budget, but they’re organized enough, and that is more than enough.
I talk more about being organized enough in December’s podcast interview by branding expert Melanie Spring in her Adventures in Branding podcast. Please listen here.
5 - Be explicit.
To toot my own horn, what makes me a good organizer is that I meet people where they are. If they need to move at breakneck speed, I can. If they need to painstakingly discuss every scribble on every sticky, I will. If they need someone to just flip through magazines next to them as they toss magazines, I do (a lot).
Ages ago, I had a client who said, “Kacy, just tell me what to do.” This was in response to my asking if he’d like to move on to drawer A or B next. When I told my next client that story, she said, “This process is so hard for me, that I think I’d break down and cry if you were so direct.” Most of my clients are somewhere in between, leaning towards the former. I’ve become lovingly more direct, in the interest of time, efficiency, and the tough love that folks are asking for (sometimes indirectly).
Instead of “Do you think you have too many binder clips?” it’s now, “I’ve just counted 109 large binder clips. This is too many for your home office of one. Can we cut them down?”
Instead of “Why are we keeping 28 years of checking account statements?” it’s now “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you to that you don’t need checking statements from 1999."
Instead of “I pick my battles, and I’ll let you keep the lifetime supply of staplers,” it’s now “You said in the beginning that you’re starved for clarity and space. Let all but 2 staplers go."
It’s my nature to be the iron fist in the velvet glove, but the glove has slipped off a bit in 2017. I still have a soft approach that gets people thinking for themselves, instead of playing Simon Says. But experimenting with being increasingly more explicit has been fun and effective. This is sensitive work, so there is a time and a place for it, but it’s my favorite new tool in the toolbox.
6 - Recycling won’t save us, but maybe fewer office supplies will
When I had the idea to write about this topic, I immediately shut it down for fear that clients A and B will think I’m calling them out. She’ll think I’m talking only about her. Then, I realized that it also applied directly to clients X, Y, Z, and more. Examples also came to me from over 10 years ago. If it was such a rampant pattern, then it’s worth exposing. In the spirit of being explicit (see #5 above), I’ll lay it out as explicitly as possible:
I see a lot of people masking (or denying) over consumption with their pride in being a good recycler.
Luckily, we live in a place and time where recycling is the norm. If a client’s municipality recycles, so do they. We always pay close attention to what can be recycled and how to do it correctly. Awareness of our decision’s effects on the environment is at an all-time high. Why do I sometimes feel though that this is futile? Because I see all that is bought and saved, only to land in a landfill one day - most of it never used - most of it office supplies.
But for now, the supplies are neatly put away. Their journey isn’t over though. Sixteen years as an organizer has made me privy to what happens from here.
With the help of an organizer (or not), a few surplus supplies are donated. The rest are stored neatly in a closet, drawer, or shelf. Space is found and all is well. From there, chances are very slim though that they will ever be used, despite the best intentions and grandest visions. Years or decades from now, they are beyond use, and trashed. If still usable, they are donated. Even when donated, they are still on a one way street to the landfill. But in the meantime, scraps of paper are saved for lists and notes, file folders are re-labeled to live one more life, and you feel like a good steward of the planet.
To painstakingly reuse the backs of every printed page, wrinkled sheet of notebook paper, and pages of a nearly empty notebook helps. Every effort helps and the earth thanks us for it.
What would help more though would be to not buy containers for things that really should be eliminated, leaving you with a mountain of unused binders, sorters, and labels.
What would help more though would be to return things that you haven’t used within a few weeks.
What would help more though would be to group like with like, so you don’t buy more of that thing that you already have 5 of.
What would help more though would be to resist the urge to buy 10 when you can buy one.
What would help more though would be to resist the urge to buy one when you can buy none.
My ask is this: continue to reuse and recycle as much as possible, but please, please buy less to recycle in the first place.
What did you learn about organizing in 2017? Big or small, ground-breaking or mundane, all insights & comments are welcome below!